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'Hypothermia": Icelandic thriller dwells in past's hold on present

As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Although Faulkner certainly wasn't talking about Nordic noir, his now-famous observation could easily have served as the epigraph for Hypothermia, the

nolead begins By Arnaldur Indriðason

Minotaur Books. 314 pp. $24.99

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Richard Lindsey

As William Faulkner wrote in

Requiem for a Nun

, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Although Faulkner certainly wasn't talking about Nordic noir, his now-famous observation could easily have served as the epigraph for


, the sixth of Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason's superb Reykjavík thrillers to be published in English translation. (The others, in order of publication, are

Jar City

, made into a memorable 2007 film;

Silence of the Grave




The Draining Lake

; and

Arctic Chill


Hypothermia begins with a memory. A woman named María recalls the funeral of her mother, Leonóra, who had died of cancer a few years before. Almost immediately, we are brought sharply back to the present, when we discover that María has apparently killed herself. A friend, Karen, has found the body hanging from a roofbeam in the lakeside summer cottage of María's family. The case falls to Indriðason's long-suffering, long-thinking detective, Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. (This is the eighth book in the Erlendur series.)

After talking to Karen and to María's husband, Baldvin, Erlendur finds no reason to think María's death is anything but a suicide. He learns María had been extremely close to Leonóra, that she desperately wanted to contact her mother in the afterlife, and that her father had drowned at the same summer cottage when she was small, but his initial impression is unchanged.

Erlendur is unable to leave matters there. He wants to know "why the woman had suffered such a cruel and lonely fate by the lake where her father had also met his chilly end." Is there any connection between the two deaths, so far apart in time? To find out, Erlendur embarks on his own private investigation.

While looking into María's death, Erlendur continues to be reminded that the past isn't past. He receives the latest in a long series of visits from an old man whose son, Davíd, vanished more than 30 years before. Ever since, the old man has come to the police periodically to ask if there's any news of Davíd; there never is. Though Erlendur hasn't been able to help the old man, he remains curious about Davíd's fate.

Erlendur's abiding interest in missing-person cases leads him to another mysterious disappearance, that of a young woman named Gudrún, or Dúna, reported near the time Davíd vanished. There has been no new evidence in this case either, but even after several decades, Erlendur still wants to know what happened.

Erlendur is haunted not only by other people's pasts but also by his own. When he was 10, his younger brother, Bergur, was lost in a snowstorm from which Erlendur barely escaped. Despite an exhaustive search, Bergur's body was never found. (Hypothermia's original Icelandic title, Hardskafi, is the name of a mountain in the area where Bergur vanished.) Erlendur is still deeply troubled by his brother's death; not a day goes by that Bergur doesn't enter his thoughts.

In addition, Erlendur is still dealing with the aftermath of his long-ago divorce. His ex-wife, Halldóra, hates him with a passion undimmed by time. His daughter, Eva Lind, has been a drug addict and perhaps occasionally a prostitute; her relationship with him is prickly and heated, frequently angry but occasionally affectionate. She seems to need him, even if he is unsure why. Erlendur's son, Sindri Snaer, needs him less; their relationship is polite and never overtly hostile, but it's distinctly cooler than that between father and daughter.

Since Hypothermia is a thriller, and a fine one at that, it would be unfair to describe the plot further. Outcomes are worked out in ways both clever and sad. Erlendur's own past remains to be fully addressed, but as the final chapter suggests, he may finally be starting to take on that task in earnest.

Hypothermia is a satisfying mystery, and that is reason enough to recommend it. But what makes it and the other Reykjavík novels works of special quality is the attention Arnaldur pays to his characters. (Because Indriðason is a patronymic rather than a true last name, it's acceptable by Icelandic standards to refer to the author as Arnaldur, even in formal settings - although he's still indexed under I rather than A in American bookstores.) One of Hypothermia's pleasures is the way Arnaldur handles Erlendur's interactions with Eva Lind. Sometimes uneasy, these scenes feel real, and the slow evolution of the relationship feels earned. Even the "villains" are recognizable human beings, neither caricatured nor excused.

As always with translated works, much of the reading experience depends on the quality of the translation. I have no knowledge of Icelandic, but I can say that the translation, by Victoria Cribb, generally flows well and is pleasurable to read. The English is more British than American, and there are some spots where I wonder whether the original Icelandic might not have been a bit looser and more slangy than its English rendering - a minor point that does not detract from this fine book.